WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – The Air Force Institute of Technology, known as AFIT by many, welcomed a new Air University Detachment 1 Commander/Director of Staff Dec. 16, 2016. However, he’s no stranger to the institute or its mission. In fact, he has served in several capacities at AFIT since 2002 during his first assignment as a faculty member in the Civil Engineer School.
Col. Paul Cotellesso was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts and attended engineering college at Worcester Polytechnic Institute on a partial Air Force ROTC scholarship. Ever since then, a pursuit of higher education has been a commitment that Cotellesso has kept personally, and one that he encourages others to make as well.
He says a proper work-life balance is another of his passions. He and his wife Jennifer have three children – ages 20, 12, and 10. They have a dog, a 4-H rabbit for their daughter, and even some chickens and they all reside on five acres in Yellow Springs, Ohio. He and his wife coach FIRST® Lego League Teams in their spare time and he also enjoys mountain biking with his children at John Bryan State Park.
It was a series of life decisions that brought him to become an Air Force Civil Engineer, he said, rather than just one singular choice.
“Going through high school and meeting with your counselors, teachers and parents helps you make informed decisions as you get older and so for me – I had a strength in science and math, wasn’t very strong in humanities, and when I did my school search and figured out what I wanted to do when I grew up, I knew I wanted to be an engineer,” he said.
His high school guidance counselors suggested that he look into ROTC, which he did, and he was accepted into the program. He was excited to try it out. He found that it was an interesting transformation because of the ROTC lifestyle, culture, camaraderie, and team cohesion.
He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and when the time came to choose a career field, Air Force Civil Engineering seemed like a great fit. Soon after, he reported for his first assignment at Vandenberg AFB and really bought in to what civil engineers provide to the Air Force in terms of the built environment.
“It matched my degree really well, so I felt valued for something I worked really hard for. I was able to contribute to the Air Force,” he said.
Then came his first assignment to AFIT as a faculty member in the Civil Engineer School in 2002.
“I said I wanted to try being a teacher in the formal sense. It was then that I had the privilege of joining the faculty and actually experiencing the reward of being able to teach and impart knowledge and experience and just kind of watch people grow intellectually.”
It’s really important to have a passion for teaching according to Cotellesso who said he found it extremely rewarding to be able to do that in the classroom. He’s so committed to teaching and education he said he believes it would be a good thing to perhaps add a fifth pillar to the Comprehensive Airman Fitness model – an intellectual pillar, to the four pillars already included on the model – the mental, physical, social and spiritual ones.
After leaving faculty duty, he completed a one-year overseas tour of duty at Kunsan AB, South Korea and upon returning from that tour, he applied to the AFIT faculty pipeline program which gave him the opportunity to continue serving and contribute to the Air Force and the profession of teaching. He spent the next three years working toward earning a doctorate.
“So I went off to get the PhD and I remember my advisor at The Ohio State University asking me, ‘Why do you want to get a PhD?’ My response was, because I want to teach at that level and be able to help Airmen work on their intellectual pillar.”
After attaining his PhD, he had the privilege to serve as a department head in the Civil Engineer School and complete a tour in Afghanistan. He was also promoted to colonel and became the Dean of the Civil Engineer School and continued to contribute to the academic mission of educating Airmen.
“I truly believe people are the number one weapon system for the Air Force. Just that human-machine interface, the innovation and agility we’re asking Airmen to have. We’re asking them to be more multi-skilled, multi-domain, innovative and creative in this Information Technology environment, so having an organization like AFIT that can provide these things to people in terms of intellect or the brain capacity to go out and do better is phenomenal.”
Wright-Patterson AFB provides the perfect location for AFIT to be situated in order to provide this capability, Cotellesso said.
“I think there’s unmatched synergy when you look at Wright-Patterson. When you look at how people interact with systems, how people grow and develop. You have the formal academic setting of AFIT, you have the research arm of AFRL bringing that intellectual development to the warfighter through AFLCMC, you have headquarters AFMC, the outstanding support of the host unit, the 88th Air Base Wing, plus all the other mission partners here. It all enables this diverse, large organization that Team Wright-Patt is.”
Cotellesso’s message to students considering AFIT to further their education is to put the proper amount of thought into getting an advanced degree and understand why they’re doing so.
“What I tell young officers or young enlisted Airmen is the reason the Air Force wants you to get an advanced degree is really for your critical thinking, your critical problem solving skills. There’s the coursework piece which will make you more knowledgeable, but at the end of the day it’s more about that problem solving, critical thinking, analytical skills and being able to communicate more effectively.”
The sooner you get those tools in your toolbox and the more you can use them, the better, Cotellesso said.
“In this case, it’s the human mind – the brain…you put those skills in there and the more they [students] can use it throughout life, the better. So when they’re ready to be a strategic leader they’ll be a better person and be better able to contribute in the Air Force.”
Cotellesso understands that there is a plethora of options out there for students to get that advanced academic degree and he wants them to consider this early because the Air Force wants to invest in that decision. There are several programs for Airmen to get that higher education.
“AFIT offers them a great opportunity to be a student full-time, to get a network going, but also to be immersed in a defense-focused academic program. AFIT has a lot of academic rigor, but when you finish the program, you know you’ve accomplished something that you can be proud of and take all those benefits and go get a return on investment for the Air Force.”
Cotelleso says his role now is to set the conditions to have an organizational climate that is professional, respectful, transparent, accountable and responsible.
“I want to make this a place where people want to come and go to work. The 513 military and civilian staff and faculty here are phenomenal. Like any organization, we have our experts – they have their experiences and it’s just phenomenal in what the team brings to the fight. At the end of the day it’s people, it’s the teams of people that solve the complex challenges that we have and look for opportunities to really take us into the future.”
As for AFIT’s students, Cotellesso says his singular most important word for them is commitment.
“I think through commitment you achieve a whole new level of performance, versus compliance. I want our students to be committed to the Air Force, committed to their degree program, even if they know they’re going to separate before retirement. It’s a transformation event for people once they become committed to something and embrace the values of the organization and the Air Force Core Values. It is back to individual effort so if I can set those conditions and they go perform as individuals and do the best they can in the program, the product when they graduate will be a better Airman.”